The Iran-Iraq War: Annihilation With No Victor

June 16, 2021 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: IraqIranWar

The Iran-Iraq War: Annihilation With No Victor

Key Point: Neither side managed to destroy the other, although Hussein's invasion utterly failed. The conflict was yet another awful proxy match of the Cold War.

The fighting at Khorramshahr stalled the Iraqi advance on the much larger city of Abadan and the refinery on nearby Abadan Island for two weeks. Although Abadan, separated from Khorramshahr by the Karun River, had been shelled since September 22 from across the Shatt al-Arab, Iraqi troops did not begin surrounding the city until October 10, by which time the Iranians had reinforced it with almost 10,000 regular troops, 5,000 militia, and 50 tanks. An Iraqi mechanized division moved north of Khorramshahr, crossed the Karun River on October 14, and moved to cut off Abadan from Ahwaz. The Iraqis secured the road north to Ahwaz on the 15th, moved south against little resistance, and surrounded most of Abadan Island, but after heavy urban fighting they still could not completely clear the city of its tenacious defenders.

After one month of fighting, the Iraqis had occupied some 7,000 square miles of Iranian territory, but they could not improve on their early gains. The Iraqi thrust virtually ended after the 24-day bloodbath at Khorramshahr. The Iraqi advance stalled, the front stabilized, and the attackers dug in along a 170-mile-wide line on the southern front from Dehloran to Abadan. Heavy rains, which began in December, gave the Iranians five months to build up and reorganize their forces.

The first six months of 1981 were marked by a stalemate on the front and a state of open warfare within Iran as a brutal political power struggle escalated. President Bani-Sadr, in great part responsible for Iran’s initial heroic resistance, came under increasing pressure from clergy members of the Islamic Revolutionary Party. Bani-Sadr, eager to build political support among the armed forces, launched a premature attack by an armored task force that stalled in the mud outside Susangerd and was decimated with heavy losses. When the attack failed, Bani-Sadr was ousted on June 10 and replaced by Khomeini and a three-member Presidential Council. From that point on, the mullahs were in charge of prosecuting the war.

The Iranian Counterattack

Iran achieved its first successful counterattack, in September 1981, when Khomeini persuaded the regular army and militia forces to work together to lift the Iraqi siege of Abadan. A combined force of regular troops and Revolutionary Guards attacked and defeated the well-entrenched Iraqis, capturing 2,000 prisoners and forcing the Iraqis back across the Karun River. Two months later, the Iranians launched a second successful counteroffensive northwest of Ahwaz.

In late March 1982, Iran routed the Iraqi invaders from territory west of Dezful and Shush. The Iranians attacked during a sandstorm and surprised the Iraqi defenders so completely that they collapsed almost immediately. More than 15,000 Iraqi soldiers and 300 armored vehicles were captured, and 1,500 square miles of Iranian territory were retaken.

For the Iraqis, worse was to come in the months ahead. While Hussein redoubled his efforts to marshal international support for a cease-fire, Iran launched another massive offensive in an attempt to retake the captured Iranian port of Khorramshahr. The Iraqis had had 20 months to reinforce the garrison and transform the city’s gutted ruins into a seemingly impregnable fortress. The defenses were surrounded by arcs of huge earthen barriers, barbed wire, and minefields. Iran massed some 150,000 troops outside Khorramshahr and in southern Khuzestan and attacked along three major fronts, again using human-wave assaults and night attacks to surprise the defenders. After weeks of heavy fighting, the Iranians drew closer and closer to the city. The final push came on May 22 when some 70,000 Iranians advanced against 35,000 defenders. Although they suffered horrendous casualties, the Revolutionary Guards and basij finally breached the Iraqi line, and after vicious house-to-house fighting and the loss of 12,000 prisoners, the Iraqis began falling back across the Shatt.

The recapture of Khorramshahr ended the second phase of the war, during which Iran recaptured almost all of its lost territory, at a very high price—over 110,000 casualties, including 60,000 dead. From March 22 to May 24, Iraq relinquished 3,400 square miles of captured territory, at a loss of 40,000 dead, 25,000 captured, 200 tanks, and several hundred artillery pieces. Apart from a few isolated pockets, the Iraqi invasion force had been virtually cleared from Iranian soil. In June, Hussein announced his decision to unilaterally withdraw all Iraqi forces to the international border, but Khomeini quickly made it clear that the war would go on until huge reparation payments were made, Iraq was branded the aggressor, and the Hussein regime was overthrown.

March on Basra

The war’s third phase—from June 1982 to March 1984—began when Iran deployed five full divisions of troops in an attempt to capture the strategic Iraqi city of Basra. Iraq was now defending its own territory and held an advantage in aircraft of 4-to-1 and in operational artillery and armor of 3-to-1. During the previous two years, while the Iraqis occupied large swaths of Iranian territory, their engineers had been hard at work constructing a series of vast and complicated defensive positions along the border and in support lines behind it. Great man-made lakes appeared after Iraqi engineers flooded low-lying areas to form formidable barriers against tanks and advancing troops, a tremendous feat of engineering skill and backbreaking labor. When the Iraqi retreat took place, it was to a line of prepared positions, a series of mutually supporting defensive works as formidable as anything devised since the set-piece battles of World War I.

The Iranians had roughly the same number of troops around Basra as did Iraq, about 80,000. The first Iranian sortie, dubbed “Ramadan al-Mabarah,” began on the night of March 13, 1982. Led by Revolutionary Guard shock troops, four Iranian divisions attacked Iraqi border posts near Salamsheh, with the objective of cutting the main road north from Basra and isolating the city. The Iraqis enjoyed a major edge in firepower, especially artillery, and the attack bogged down after both sides had suffered heavy casualties. The Iranians regrouped and launched another major sortie on July 21, near Zaid, nine miles to the south. At a cost of well over 10,000 men killed, compared to Iraq’s 3,000, the attack wound down after scoring only minimal gains.

The Four Offensives of 1983

Iran launched four offensives in 1983, two of them in Kurdistan, but none achieved any decisive results. The battles brought the total number of casualties to roughly 245,000 men killed in action (65,000 Iraqis and 180,000 Iranians) and at least another 300,000 wounded, and marked the first significant use by the Iraqis of mustard gas on the battlefield.

In early 1984, the Iranians made another push, this time in the southern sector along a broad front covering Dehloran, Mehran, and the Hawizeh Marshes. Two limited attacks were meant as a diversion to draw Iraqi forces away from the main objective, a surprise attack through the Hawizeh Marshes to cut the Basra-Baghdad highway. Iran had deployed a strike force of between 50,000 and 100,000 troops, with another 100,000 in reserve, for the thrust. Three major amphibious attacks, using barges and small craft, targeted Beida, Ghuzail, and the Majnoon Islands. Although the initial attack upon Beida was successful, the Iranians were unable to build up a major bridgehead before the Iraqis rapidly counterattacked with artillery and armor. Iranian reinforcements coming up in small craft were ideal targets for Iraq’s armed helicopters. By February 25, three successive Iraqi counterattacks had overrun the Iranian forces. The fighting degenerated into brutality; Iraqi tanks ran over Iranian infantry and the Iraqis electrocuted others by diverting power lines into the marshes.

At Ghuzail, wave after wave of advancing Iranian militia were slaughtered when they tried to overcome the entrenched Iraqi defenders by sheer force of numbers. During the battle, Iraq used helicopters and artillery to drop mustard gas onto the oncoming Iranian columns, inflicting several thousand casualties. By March 1 the attack was over. The Iranians suffered at least five times as many casualties as they inflicted, losing between 12,000 and 20,000 men.

The “Tanker War”

Iranian troops advancing by boat found the oil-drilling complex in the Majnoon Islands virtually undefended. The “islands,” in reality, were two sand mounds in the marshes to the east of Qurnah. The Iranians were able to dig in unopposed and quickly had 20,000 troops in place. The Iraqis counterattacked on March 6. After more bitter fighting, extensive use of mustard gas, and possibly Iraq’s first experimental use of the nerve gas Tabun, Iraq could fully recover only one of the two islands, giving the Iranians something of a victory. But its losses in the offensive were so severe that Iran was unable to launch major offensive operations for a full year;

In March 1984, the so-called “tanker war” began in earnest when Iraq, using Super Etendard fighters armed with Exocet missiles, began a series of air strikes against shipping and Iranian oil installations in the Gulf, hitting two small Indian and Turkish tankers. After repeated attacks on its main terminal at Kharg Island, Iran felt compelled to respond. Given the absence of Iraqi ships in the Gulf, Iran was forced to use its dwindling air assets to retaliate against the neutral ships of Iraq’s allies, Kuwait in particular. Iran attacked a Kuwaiti tanker near Bahrain on May 13 and a Saudi tanker in Saudi waters on May 16; attacks on ships of noncombatants increased sharply thereafter. Within five weeks, the two sides had combined to hit 11 ships, 10 of them tankers.